Elon Musk’s Twitter Goes Dark on Government Data Grabs
Twitter boss Elon Musk has railed against what he sees as U.S. government attempts to “censor” the social media company.
“As (outgoing) Chair of House Intelligence, did you approve hidden state censorship in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States @RepAdamSchiff?” he asked one congressman in a tweet last December.
Musk has also promised, over and over again, to build a more transparent Twitter — one that makes it clear when a government agency requests a user’s data, or asks to take an account offline. “Transparency is the key to trust,” he tweeted around the same time.
For a decade, Twitter published rundowns twice a year of all of those government requests. But under Musk, that appears to have ended.
Despite Musk’s rhetoric about government bullying of social media, his company hasn’t published one of the formerly regular transparency reports detailing what governments are demanding from Twitter — and whether the company is bending to them.
It’s a development that’s horrified privacy advocates and former Twitter employees alike.
“We entrust our most sensitive, private, and important information to tech companies — they’re privy to the conversations, photos, social connections, and location data of almost everyone online,” Josh Richman, a spokesperson for the Electronic Freedom Foundation, said in a statement. “The reports shed crucial light on whether or not tech companies have users’ backs, or if they’re rolling over and compromising users’ data. Any company that walks away from making such reports is taking a big step backward.”
Musk did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment on this story.
In years past, Twitter routinely published data about how many demands it had received from governments, and how many enforcement actions it had taken against users accounts or tweets. The reports also detailed how and when Twitter fought the government over requests or gag orders. In 2014, the company even sued the Obama administration to quash a gag order and disclose its receipt of National Security Letters, which allow law enforcement to obtain information from Internet service providers without a warrant.
Twitter’s last transparency report — published in July 2022 and covering the last six months of 2021 — found that the U.S. government made more requests for account data than any other government, accounting for over 24 percent of Twitter’s global requests. The FBI, Department of Justice, and Secret Service “consistently submitted the greatest percentage of requests for the six previous reporting periods.” Requests from the U.S. government were down seven percent from the last reporting period but Twitter’s compliance rate went up 13 percent in the latter half of 2021.
The kinds of transparency reports that Twitter used to publish “can be really valuable in terms of showing which governments are making the most requests, how much platforms are pushing back on government, what are the trends over time and what kinds of things are they asking for,” Evelyn Douek, a professor at Stanford Law School who studies technology and public policy, tells Rolling Stone. “That can be a really important accountability mechanism not just for platforms, but also governments. You see which governments are applying the most pressure to platforms.”
The Musk-approved Twitter Files posts have offered glimpses of government officials making demands on Twitter. But the releases provide only a small — and politically selective — window on the company’s relationships with officialdom. The lack of a clear commitment to continued transparency reports going forward means that Twitter users could have less information about how the company is handling their data, despite Musk’s rhetoric.
“Elon talked a lot about the power of transparency. But the way Elon and his enablers interpret transparency is a rather creative use of the word. It’s not meaningful transparency in the way the industry defines it,” one former Twitter employee familiar with the reports tells Rolling Stone.
It’s unclear whether Twitter will continue to publish such reports or if the company even has the ability to, given its lack of staff. The reports, three former staffers familiar with them say, were labor intensive even when the company was fully staffed.
“We were working on the transparency reports, then all the program leads were immediately fired, and the remaining people that could’ve worked on the reports all left subsequently,” one former staffer says. “I’m not aware of any people left [at Twitter] who could produce these transparency reports.”
The former Twitter staffer adds, “It’s really a problem that there’s no transparency data from 2022 anywhere.”
It’s one of several topics that Musk’s Twitter has gone silent on, former employees say.
“There’s meat-and-potatoes transparency, the kind that’s required by a bunch of international regulations. That’s no longer being done. Then there’s the fancy, extra transparency around information operations and inauthentic behavior. That shit went out the window right after Elon came in,” the former staffer says.
As Rolling Stone reported in December, Twitter’s Trust and Safety staff was prepared to publish a report about a network of troll accounts linked to the Chinese government and dedicated to harassment of women journalists reporting on human rights abuses in the country. That report, along with “dozens” of others about foreign government troll networks that Twitter staff had completed in the days before its sale, was never published.
Musk himself appears somewhat resistant to the idea of reporting on government efforts to manipulate his platform. In early February, he criticized reporting from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center calling out Russian influence operations as “government censorship & media manipulation” and “a threat to our democracy.”
Contributors: Noah Shachtman